Saturday, September 17, 2011

Review: "Drive" is a haunting, powerful work of (hyper-violent) art

Film Rating: A

When discussing films, words like “powerful,” “disturbing,” “troubling,” “haunting,” and “unforgettable” tend to be thrown around ad-nauseum.  Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” is the rare film that truly earns all of those descriptors and then some.  Its visceral impact is such that I was literally shaking on my way out of the auditorium, feeling like I really needed a hug, or possibly an on-site therapist to remind and reassure me that the LA mafia isn’t out for my blood.  It’s an endlessly challenging film, one that left me speechless and without any solid opinion of what I’d just seen, a disorientation so severe that I am currently on my fourth attempt at starting this review.  More after the jump...

It’s not like the film doesn’t give the viewer fair warning.  The pre-credits sequence, one of the best cinematic introductions I’ve ever seen, establishes exactly the sort of breathless, calculated tension that would leave me wanting to go cry in a corner once the credits rolled.  Ryan Gosling, playing an unnamed character, stands in his apartment giving instructions on a phone; he tells the person on the other end that they will have a five minute window to get an unspecified job done, and if they go outside that window, they won’t receive his help.  We cut to Gosling behind the wheel of a car, and we learn that the unspecified job is a robbery.  He takes no part in the heist, but is instead a hired driver, an expert who will guarantee to get the robbers away from the police without any heat so long as they are in-and-out within five minutes.  During this opening sequence, we watch the character execute his craft flawlessly; he isn’t just a talented driver, but an artist behind the wheel who can evade the authorities with nuance.  I don’t think I breathed from the moment Gosling appeared until the title card flashed and the sequence ended.

As the film progresses, we learn that this is Driver’s third job; by day, he works as an auto mechanic, and sometimes as a stunt driver.  He’s a total introvert, but through Gosling’s expressions and body language, we get the feeling that he wants something more out of life.  The answer falls right into his lap when he meets a woman named Irene (Carey Mulligan), a neighbor with a sweet little kid and a husband in jail.  Driver slowly becomes part of their ‘family,’ but when Irene’s husband is released from prison, things get complicated; to make matters worse, Driver’s boss, Shannon (Bryan Cranston), has started working with two nefarious men, played by Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks, both looking to cause trouble for Driver and his loved ones.

If may sound like the film calms down after its brilliant opening, but in truth, it never does, not even in the quietest of sequences.  There’s always tension, always something unspoken between the characters that threatens to erupt in a shower of passion or of violence.  In fact, Refn establishes a very particular rhythm in the small-scale personal scenes between Gosling and Mulligan that is repeated during the horrific acts of violence that characterize the third act.  And when I say horrific, I mean it – “Drive” is gory in Grindhouse fashion, but the real terror coms not from the bloodshed, but from the aforementioned cinematic rhythm that allows us to pinpoint the moments when shit is about to hit the fan.  We know what’s coming every time, and fear or unease consumes us as we wait for the inevitable.

Refn’s masterful use of tension automatically grants the film high marks on a purely technical perspective, but I suspect the violence will leave many viewers cold.  It’s certainly not a film for everyone, and while it’s hard to find meaning behind the brutality, “Drive” ultimately has more substance than its simple noir exterior would suggest.  This isn’t the deepest movie of the year by any stretch of the imagination, but there is something palpable under the surface, a meditation on violence, love, and crime that will speak differently to every viewer.

On a less esoteric level, “Drive” is simply a masterwork of filmmaking, and whatever your thoughts might be on the story or the content, it’s undeniably an expertly crafted movie.  Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography is breathtaking, composed with such incredible thought and care that I think one could easily analyze the composition of individual frames for meaning.  The use of sound is even better.  Cliff Martinez’s soft, understated score effortlessly creates the right atmosphere in every scene, and pop music is occasionally used for perfectly timed sonic punctuation.  The sound effects – of cars driving, people moving, knives slashing, guns firing, etc. – are equally atmospheric and powerful, and one of the best sequences in the film is one where Refn drops all music and relies solely on diegetic noise. 

The performances, meanwhile, are uniformly breathtaking.  Ryan Gosling is utterly spellbinding, and though he has very little dialogue, he manages to speak volumes about the mysterious inner-workings of his character.  This is brilliant, nuanced work, a performance that deserves an Oscar but probably isn’t flashy enough for the Academy.  Pairing Gosling with Carey Mulligan is a brilliant move, as she has a similar talent for using silence to her advantage.  As for the supporting cast, Bryan Cranston delivers a fully-formed, three-dimensional character despite his limited screen time, and Albert Brooks is so scary and intimidating that all those early episodes of “The Simpsons” he starred in may be forever ruined.  

I’m still trying to sort out all my thoughts on “Drive.”  From a purely technical standpoint, it’s a masterpiece, but it’s also a disturbing and challenging experience that lingers long after one leaves the theatre.  Hours later, I still feel shaken, and I’m unsure whether or not I actually enjoyed it or merely appreciated its efforts.  Either way, a film with this level of impact probably deserves an “A,” and I would be surprised if it didn’t find a spot on my top-ten list at the end of the year.  Recommended, but not for the faint of heart.  

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